42 Review: Not Quite Out of the Park
In early March of this year, ESPN conducted an online poll in an attempt to determine the “Greatest Athlete Of All Time.” Once the nominees were set in NCAA bracket form, a bunch of big brains in Bristol (CT) used some form of “scientific” metrics and determined that the final four athletes in contention were Jim Brown (football), Bo Jackson (baseball/football), Michael Jordan (basketball), and Jackie Robinson (baseball). When the dust settled, ESPN decided that Bo Jackson should hold the title.
This, of course, is ridiculous. (Ultimately, so is a poll like this, when it includes skateboarder Tony Hawk in the top 16. I mean, I like Tony Hawk and all, but please.)
I grew up in the Bo Jackson era and yes, in terms of pure athletic ability, he probably wins the who’s-best argument. But athletes are about more than just athletic prowess; they are also about cultural impact. Of the final four athletes in the poll, each has had his own impact on American culture, but none more than Jackie Robinson – the first African American player to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. The way he paved for those who came after him cannot be overstated, and writer/director Brian Helgeland attempts to capture this in the Jackie Robinson baseball biopic 42.
As the film opens, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has made it known to his advisors that he is of the mind to add a black player to his roster. When this is met with resistance, Rickey ultimately convinces his men that money isn’t black or white – money is green, and adding a black player to the team will mean more black people buying tickets to baseball games. After reviewing the files of dozens of players, Rickey ultimately chooses Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), standout shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League.
The road to the big leagues is a rough one for Robinson. Just like any prospect, Robinson has to prove himself on a minor league team – in this case, the Dodgers’ affiliate Montreal Royals of the International League. But unlike other prospects, Robinson faces more than better pitching and higher expectations; he also faces severe racial hatred, not only from those in the stands, but from the umpires, the opposing players and coaches, and even his own teammates.
And when Robinson is called up to play in The Show for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the big league play is matched by big league discrimination. Through it all, Rickey, whose motivations are more than monetary, remains a constant source of encouragement and guidance in Robinson’s career, as well as the player’s greatest champion. Also helping Robinson through his historic journey is his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), and a reporter/advance man assigned to him by Rickey, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland).
As casting goes, Boseman is a mixed bag. Because of the likeness he bears to Robinson, and because of his physicality in the baseball scenes, he is believable as the titular big-leaguer. However, he’s not a very good actor, and Helgeland does his best to mask this fact with far too many scenes of Robinson being thoughtful, reflective, or pensive, and with dialogue that does not tax the actor’s ability to deliver lines … or even memorize them. If Robinson was the strong-but-silent type in real life, there are better ways to convey that. I also wonder if Boseman was at all daunted by the fact that he would be opening on 3,000 screens portraying a legend.
In support of Boseman, Harrison Ford is simply wonderful as Branch Rickey. He completely disappears in the role, and while Rickey is one of those gravelly-voiced, cigar-chomping executives that films from the 1940s so often stereotypically portrayed, Ford never plays him as that bombastic stereotype; he bellows when he needs to, but when the scenes call for it, he is perfectly measured in tone and delivery. I was asked if I thought this performance might garner Oscar love for Ford who, for all of his success (he’s played Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan – and is ranked #4 among actors in all-time unadjusted box office gross), he’s only ever been nominated once for the Little Gold Man. I tend to think that based on this performance alone he deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and given what he has meant to the industry, he might have some “sentimental favorite” momentum too.
As for the other primaries, Holland and Beharie are serviceable, and Christopher Meloni is surprisingly good as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. But really helping this film along is the supporting cast, which sparkles with all the right character actors. There really are too many to mention here, but I must single out John C. McGinley as radio announcer Red Barber. He gets it SO right … his cadence, his inflections … and just hearing him speak transported me back to hot summer nights and listening to baseball on the radio with my grandfather as we played dominoes and drank iced tea. Anyone who takes me there can be in any film he wants to be in, as far as I’m concerned.
But for as much as all of the small things are right, it’s the big things that Helgeland gets wrong that hurt this film.
First, Helgeland (whose selection to direct this is a head-scratcher to me, given that his directorial résumé reflects nothing to suggest he is capable of this project) fails to evoke that feeling of how majestic the game of baseball is. You might think this sounds like a baseball fan thing, but if you go back to successful baseball movies, there’s a feeling – mostly conveyed through direction and cinematography – of just how big it all is: the atmosphere, the game, the moment. That happens only once here, with a really nice shot of Robinson and teammate Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) looking into the stands. Beyond that, the visuals are pedestrian, and all of this history could have just as well been made on a playground or in an office building.
Which brings me to Helgeland’s greater sin: his inability to convey the impact that Jackie Robinson had on society.
This biopic is mostly an Xs-and-Os execution of events that occurred. Look at that: there are whites-only bathrooms. Look at that: white people hated black people. Look at that: black children looked up to Jackie Robinson. And worse than that, there were little things – some mere mentions – thrown into the film that seem to be an attempt by Helgeland to add scope, but they fail to do so. Look at that: Rachel defies societal boundaries and uses a whites-only bathroom. Look at that, Branch Rickey has involved the FBI because of death threats on Robinson’s life.
Never does Helgeland manage to convey, though, a sense of the impact of the events that occur (unless you count the “since then” ending of the film, which is nice and all, but has nothing to do with storytelling). Those events are important, for sure, but more important is the greater impact of both the actions and reactions surrounding those events. In fact, the events are so check-listy that I’ll go so far as to say that the film is no more about Jackie Robinson’s achievements than it is about the rest of society’s racial hatred. That’s not to say society shouldn’t be portrayed that way (it should), and I’m sure that the language that was used in the film was spot-on to the times, but the endless parade of racists only reinforces the fact that the racism existed; that parade does nothing to convey Robinson’s triumph over it (other than his ability take it without lashing back).
I’ve been on record for quite some time with the assertion that schools teach and Hollywood entertains. To me, the historical accuracy of a film “based on a true story” is not paramount to the successful execution of the film itself (as long as Hollywood remains true to the spirit of history). That doesn’t mean, though, that I give filmmakers a pass from recognizing and capturing the scope of the history they are trying to project on film. With better direction and a stronger lead, 42 had the potential to be one of Hollywood’s all-star baseball films. Instead, it’s a major-league footnote.